But when we gather to celebrate our Independence Day, we know that our democracy consists of much more than a single day, a single vital declaration of a few brave patriots. Instead, it consists of a process – a long, often painful process – of meeting and overcoming serious challenges, and emerging from that process a stronger nation.
As we celebrate the endurance of our democracy over 238 years, we also must reflect upon the obstacles we have overcome. We must ask ourselves, when these inevitable challenges arise, what must we do as a people? What must any nation that aspires to true democracy do to meet these challenges?
President Lincoln had some advice about this very topic. Since we last celebrated our independence day, we commemorated the 150 year anniversary of President Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. In that eloquent speech, delivered amidst the most dire crisis in American history, our Civil War, President Lincoln succinctly expressed how a democratic people must rise to confront threats to democracy.
Lincoln began his speech with probably the most well-known invocation of the Declaration of Independence in American history:
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
He reminded us that thousands had sacrificed their lives fighting for those principles of liberty and equality. And he said that when confronting a severe threat to our democracy, we, the living, must dedicate ourselves anew to those founding principles. That we owe it to our forefathers who sacrificed so much, to bear down and redouble our efforts to preserve our democracy. Or in Lincoln’s immortal words: that “it is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us . . . that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
President Lincoln, of course, was reflecting upon the Civil War, in which tens of thousands of Americans gave their lives. But he also was talking about something much larger, something universal – the notion of how citizens of a democracy must respond in the face of challenges if true democracy is to endure. Democracy is born, but it must be reborn again many times as challenges are met and overcome.
Our democracy was born on the fourth of July, but it has been reborn, many times over the course of our long history – when we fought to end slavery and to preserve our Union in the Civil War, when we battled to defend democracy in the Second World War, when we struggled toward true equality for all Americans during the Civil Rights era, as we have struggled with our own war on poverty – for real socio-economic inclusion and in countless other examples. In each case, we drew our strength from the principles upon which our democracy was founded – liberty, equality, self-determination – and we resolved that the sacrifices of our predecessors would not be in vain.
Our challenges as a nation continue to this day. We are now emerging from two long and costly wars. We have weathered a protracted economic downturn. We have endured rancorous political fights in Washington. And we must continue to meet these challenges to preserve and strengthen our democracy.
Of course, the hard work of democracy is different everywhere. And the people of Nicaragua are on their own unique journey. During the 19th century they fought for independence and unity. Thirty-five years ago they removed a dictatorship. They too have fought and emerged from a bloody civil war. And there have been setbacks as the people of Nicaragua have sought to nurture their young democracy. Although our circumstances are different, we often share the same strategies to fortify and preserve a fair and just society. The people of any democracy must draw strength from the principles and values that first inspired them and must ready themselves for the real effort that democracy demands. We look forward to working with the Nicaraguan people and supporting them as they themselves meet and overcome these challenges.
And so today, yes, we celebrate that day on which we first declared independence. But we also solemnly remember that democracy does not come easily, that the next momentous challenge is always on the horizon, and that the willingness of a people to dedicate themselves again and again to the hard work of democracy is what makes it successful.